Meat-Free February

In January, when Sir David Attenborough urged us to recognise that “The moment of crisis has come” in our efforts to tackle climate change, the achievements of two of my heroines came to mind. Five decades ahead of Greta Thunberg’s admirable campaign, two women gave an early warning of the serious environmental damage to our world that has now reached a critical stage.

Rachel Carson’s beautiful book​ Silent Spring helped inspire the environmental movement in 1962; and nine years later, Frances Moore Lappé published Diet for a Small Planet, the first major book to note the environmental impact of meat production.

Although I have always enjoyed cooking and eating meat, I am content to forgo the pleasure for weeks at a time. When a student, my son decided to become vegetarian so I have been devising appropriate dishes for years. Increasingly, I find, that friends and family who have always been committed carnivores find a gradual or occasional approach to meat-free eating perfectly acceptable, sampling alternative dishes for one day a week, or for one week a month. I’ve also discovered that vegetarian dishes require plenty of flavour with seasoning and spices in order to appeal.

Inspiration for cooking delicious food centred on grains and pulses, nuts and plant protein, often comes in recipes from areas of the world such as India and the Far East where vegetarian eating has existed for centuries. The repertoire of superb recipes of my good friend, Sri Owen, often persuades me to cook with tofu and tempeh from her books on Indonesian and Thai cooking. So it is indeed fortunate that a wide variety of ingredients for meat-free cooking has never been easier to find.


Serves 2

I devised this vegetarian recipe as a main course for a Christmas or alternative celebratory meal so the recipe is a little longer than for an everyday dish. The contrast in textures and flavour between the layers of spelt and the chestnuts and cashews makes the dish particularly enjoyable.

1 kilo/ 2 lb butternut squash
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 small shallot, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 stick celery, finely diced
salt, milled pepper
100 g/ 3 1⁄2 oz uncooked pearled spelt
5 cm/ 2 in piece of red chilli, seeded and chopped
300 ml/ 10 fl oz water
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cumin
1⁄4 teaspoon cumin seed
1 tablespoon of chopped parsley or coriander leaves
1⁄4 teaspoon ground allspice
150 ml/ 5 fl oz red wine
scant teaspoon potato flour blended with 1 tablespoon water 200 g/ 7 oz vacuum-packed or bottled cooked chestnuts
45 g/ 1 1⁄2 oz salted roasted cashew nuts
2 tablespoons cranberry sauce, optional

Rinse the squash in cold water and dry with kitchen paper. Cut in half lenthways, scoop out the seeds and fibre and discard. Make a series of

cuts in the flesh of the squash and place with the flat side down on lightly oiled baking paper in a roasting pan.

Roast the squash in a 200’C 400’F oven for 30-40 minutes or until the inside is cooked and soft enough to mash.

Meanwhile prepare the filling. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan and stir in the shallot, garlic, carrot and celery. Cook over low to moderate heat for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are soft then season with salt and pepper. Remove the pan from the heat and use a spoon to divide the mixture in two then spoon one half into a shallow non-stick pan and set aside.

Tip the spelt into a fine sieve and rinse briefly under cold water. Drain well then tip into the saucepan, add the chopped chilli and the water. Bring to the boil, stir and turn down the heat and cook, uncovered, over low heat for 30-40 minutes or until the spelt is soft but retains its texture. Increase the heat, stir in both ground cumin and cumin seeds with the chopped parsley or coriander leaves and cook, stirring all the time, until any surplus liquid has evaporated. Remove the pan from the heat.

Scoop out most of the flesh of the cooked squash – leaving a thin layer to maintain the shape of the vegetable – and add to the spelt. Stir together until the cooked squash is mixed in and taste to check the seasoning. Spoon the mixture into each half of the squash, place them on separate heatproof serving dishes and cover with a sheet of baking foil then reheat them in a hot oven.

Stir the ground allspice into the shallow pan of softened vegetables over medium heat, add the red and bring to the boil, stirring now and again until the liquid has halved. Stir in the potato flour blended with water until the mixture has slightly thickened. Add the chestnuts and cashews and stir together until heated through. Taste and season according to taste.

Remove from the heat and stir in the cranberry sauce, if desired. Spoon the mixture over the spelt layer in the squash halves and replace in a hot oven for 15 minutes before serving.